“Sometimes anger is the pure and determined light that shows you the way forward.” With these introductory words, author G. Willow Wilson sends her ferocious and joyful debut novel into the world—more accurately, her debut text-based novel, for Alif the Unseen comes on the winged heels of her award-winning graphic work. As with every comic-book artist turned author, the critical question is this: Can her talent for vivid characterization translate from image into text?
The answer, in Wilson’s case, is a resounding “yes.” The main reason for her success is her anger. It’s a courageous matter for a Muslim woman to express rage to a Western readership that has come so readily to equate Muslim rage with the horrors of 9/11. But a decade after that catastrophe, the fragile Arab Spring has given a new face to Muslim anger: not a murderous hatred, but a fine outrage against tyranny; a gutsy and spontaneous resistance against various regimes who have falsely equated freedom with apostasy.
Computer technology, and the social networking it has engendered, has been the most powerful tool for this painful process of liberation. It is inevitable, then, for the hero of Alif the Unseen to be a computer hacker, that most “unseen” of antiheroes. Alif only wanted to use his geeky skills to be with Intisar, his unattainable beloved. Instead, he finds himself at the head of a vast political storm—at first inadvertently, but then with whole heart. He is a modern-day Aladdin who rubs not a magic lamp, but a mouse pad, thus loosing chaos into his unnamed Arabian city, including genie (properly spelled “jinn”), demons and “The Hand,” who seeks to control the fate of his people.
At the center of the tale stands the figure of Dina, the “unbeautiful” maiden who hides her light under a bushel of Muslim veils. Dina points Alif to the redemption of his world through love—the unseen first principle of every great faith tradition.
Whatever the critical response may be to Wilson’s unique and unruly literary gifts, there is no question that Alif the Unseen is one of those rare events in the history of publishing, when an ancient pattern of storytelling (The Arabian Nights) is grafted onto an up-to-the-minute world crisis. This synthesis has great spiritual authority, thanks to the vision of G. Willow Wilson.